Sound-Bar makes a big noise in Chicago

Once upon a time there was a wonderful nightclub named Sound-Bar in the fabled city of Chicago. It should have been a very happy and busy club, because it was very beautiful. It had sleek, custom-designed furniture upholstered in sensuous ultrasuede. There was a sophisticated video system woven throughout its maze of color-themed bars and lounges. The mood lighting was intimate and atmospheric. The dance floor had an innovative system of motorized black scrims to make holographic-looking projections. But this club was sad, because it had no visitors to keep it company. It was closed and dark and lonely, held captive by the evil wizard of Chicago's byzantine liquor license approval process.

This is the saga of Sound-Bar. The concept was born in mid-2000, when the owners approached Rocco Laudizio and his company Slick Design and Manufacturing to submit a design proposal for an elegant and luxurious new club. “The owners are friends of mine for 10 to 15 years,” Laudizio says. “They wanted to do something really spectacular. We tried to keep everything very minimal, very European, very flowing.”

The experience begins outside. The storefront windows of the converted building incorporate an LED system from Color Kinetics that slowly changes colors throughout the night. Guests enter through an alley at the back of the building, leading one to believe that it will be a hard-edged, industrial-style club. Once past the rolling steel doors and freight elevator, however, clubgoers are greeted with a sophisticated ambiance of wood, stainless steel, and smoked glass, with accents of colorful neon. “The entry bar has ash wood on all the walls and the furniture is yellow ultrasuede,” Laudizio says. “We decided to use Ushio yellow MR-16 bulbs and it made the whole room yellow; with the orange neon glowing from the bar it's a cool mix of colors.” Architectural lighting throughout the club is by Halo Lighting, FC Lighting, B-K Lighting, and Lithonia.

The entrance is on the upper level, with the main dance floor and VIP rooms. There is a round lounge bar all done in a deep wine-red color. MR-16s with red Ushio bulbs are angled onto the walls and decorative details. The private lounge area on a raised platform around the dance floor is all in shades of deep blue. “We went with 15W MR-16 bulbs with blue parabolic lenses,” Laudizio says, “and the two bars are blue acrylic with neon.” Down the length of the dance floor are four acrylic columns containing a Color Kinetics LED system that can change color with the music. Laudizio also designed two glass walls 23" long by 13" high for rear video projection.

The gear list evolves

The dance floor lighting and sound system was designed and specified by Howard Windmiller of Windmiller Sound, which specializes in club audio and lighting. The system for Sound-Bar was revised and updated several times over the two-year gestation of the project. Windmiller explains, “We decided what we were going to do lighting-wise back in October of this past year, right before the installation. As new things came out, we kept changing it. We knew the budget we had to work with; we went to LDI and were able to see what's out there and get what we considered to be the hottest effects that were available.” Lighting equipment includes two High End Systems x.Spots, four refurbished High End Emulators®, eight Elation Vision 575s, eight Coemar iSpots, 16 Elation Snapshot DMX strobes, and a centerpiece of four Martin Wizards.

To enhance the dance lighting, there is also a custom motorized scrim system, made from black vinyl window screen mesh. “When these things are in the down position and it's dark in the room, you don't necessarily see them, you see through them,” Windmiller says. “Part of the problem I've seen with white scrim material is that it tends to brighten up the room — it's reflective and it also blocks the lighting. If you're using any kind of blacklight it just reflects right off it and brightens the whole room up. The dance floor space here is long but the ceilings are low, so I didn't want people to feel like the place was getting smaller.” But with the black mesh, “the light reflects off it but also goes through it, so you get a three-dimensional type of effect; it looks like things are floating above you. Especially when using Emulators or the x.Spots, you get projection effects that are more 3D as opposed to just plain gobos. The x.Spots have glass Lithopatterns with things like clouds; you shoot them up and it looks like there's clouds floating above you. That was the whole idea. It works pretty well, I have to say. I'm really happy with the effect.”

Windmiller was especially conscious of designing a system that is flexible and easily reconfigurable. “One month we might have [the scrims] all lined up down the center of the dance floor, next month four on one side and four on the other, just to keep the look in the club fresh,” Windmiller says. “The way the installation is done, it makes it easy to move any of the lights in the club. A few months from now if we decide we want to move things around, we never have to call an electrician. We use an electrical system using unistrut to hold the lights and also to carry the wiring for the electrical in the club over the dance floor. We can always change, add, move things around in a day, and that's going to keep this system looking fresh, where a lot of clubs, once the lights are up they just stay up.”

Dance lighting control is through a Martin LightJockey system, with two flat-screen monitors, one of which is a touch panel. “We set a bunch of cues on the touch panel so you can instantly call up your cues,” Windmiller says. “We're also using a 66-note keyboard to overlay colors and different speeds and cues on top of other things, so you can almost play the lights like a musical instrument, and we use the MIDI functions on the LightJockey to strike all the cues off the MIDI keyboard. The light guy seems to like it a lot. It lets him follow the music better than just pushing buttons or moving a mouse.”

Adding video to the mix

Throughout the club are various video installations, such as the two large glass panels in the dance floor area, plus walls of LCD monitors around the bars and even mini-screens in the restroom stalls. Gordon Kummel of Mindfield was called on to provide the system and the content.

The owners knew of Kummel through a large-scale art installation utilizing projection that he had designed about a year and a half ago in Chicago's club district. “It was actually designed like a club,” Kummel says. “We had DJs and a dance floor, and a lot of the industry people in Chicago visited it. [The owners] didn't call me initially because they thought I was an art guy and that I wouldn't be interested in doing commercial work, which is ironic because we were actually developing this system specifically to be a product and we were testing it under the circumstances of this art installation. We're hoping to take a lot of the stuff we did for that and bring it into the club world.”

For Sound-Bar, Kummel “worked on a whole video architecture for the club. All told it's about 20 unique video feeds. We put in a system that integrates all that; it's all controlled from the DJ area, and they basically have a media library and they can route any media to any output. We put in our software and hardware and it's all computer-based, it's all streaming media off media servers. We loaded it up with an initial package of content, but people can bring their own media and add it to the library. It can be accessed by a VJ, or a performer or performance group can come in a few days in advance and load their media into the system. There's not a set library; it will keep growing.”

The large glass walls on the dance floor proved a bit of a challenge. “They had a throw distance of, like, 5" between where the projectors were going to be inset into the walls and the giant glass panels. That's extremely short, and they wanted to be able to fill this entire wall, which is basically impossible. It required using special short-throw projectors. We even, in one case, attached a lens to a lens to get a double magnification effect. To make everything economical for them, we spec'd business-grade projectors instead of industrial-grade. Because they were dealing with very short distances they didn't really need 4-5,000 lumen projectors; it would just be overkill.”

Kummel says he collaborated with Windmiller on balancing the video levels with the dance lighting. “When you're dealing with video and lighting in the same room you want to design it so that they don't fight each other,” Kummel explains. “They work well together; in fact, the video works a lot like lighting. That was the intention all along, to create a video architecture that had a feeling that complemented the lighting. It's not so much the idea of hanging a bunch of TVs, it's more the idea of using video as a lighting element. Howard did a great job.” Kummel also says the two of them are hoping to work together again on future projects.

Downstairs there are three bars and a secondary dance floor with a more laid-back atmosphere. The rooms here are color-themed, one each in red, orange, and green. The color comes from the walls, carpeting, and furnishings, but not from the lighting. “We tried to do it with colored lamps,” Laudizio says, “but it didn't work. We wanted the pure light.”

The stairway itself is a showcase, featuring portholes of sandblasted glass and a video waterfall cascading down a tower of eight LCD monitors. “We wanted to do a real waterfall, but I felt that would not be a good thing in a nightclub,” quips Laudizio. “There's also some lights on the stairs, like runway lights. We put red lights in the floor every 4" to direct the flow of traffic.”

Even the restrooms receive special treatment. The entrance to the main restrooms on the upper level have glass partitions with large-scale images of ice cubes, colored blue for the men's and red for the women's. There is no other signage. To light that, Laudizio says, “we put lights in the floor in front of the glass, so the only lighting you see to go into the bathroom is this wall of blue or red ice cubes. In the rooms we also put more Ushio yellow MR-16s, because I really like that product.” The bathroom in the red lounge is sandblasted glass, and when the door is locked, red Ushio lamps with additional red filters along the floor turn the whole room red.

Meanwhile, Sound-Bar sits patiently waiting for opening night. At press time, it was expected that its lower-lever liquor license would be processed by March.

Contact the author at aslingerland@primediabusiness.com.